We all like a good tale as old as time, and Disney has remade Beauty and the Beast as a live-action film starring Emma Watson in the titular role as Belle. Can live actors live up to the animated version? Will Belle find her true love? Can gaping plot holes with the original film be filled in with more song? Let’s find out.
Anyone who is into Disney films will already have watched Beauty and the Beast, despite its 26 years. Belle is still one of the top favourite Disney princesses, and even if you haven’t seen the film, the tale really is as old as time. In fact, any date before 6 July 1189 is considered “time immemorial”, and the tale of Beauty and the Beast is at least around 3,000 years older than that. My point, though, is that you have absolutely no excuse to not have at least the slightest inkling of what the story is about, unless you’re younger than four. And if you’re a four year-old reading this, then you are indeed one precocious—and possibly pretentious—child.
In any event, the story and characters audiences know and love come to life in the live-action adaptation of Disney’s animated classic Beauty and the Beast, which is story of the fantastic journey of Belle, a bright, beautiful and independent young woman who is taken prisoner by a Beast in his castle. Despite her fears, she befriends the castle’s enchanted staff and learns to look beyond the Beast’s hideous exterior and realize the kind heart of the true Prince within. The film stars: Emma Watson as Belle; Dan Stevens as the Beast; Luke Evans as Gaston, the handsome, but shallow villager who woos Belle; Kevin Kline as Maurice, Belle’s father; Josh Gad as LeFou, Gaston’s long-suffering aide-de-camp; Ewan McGregor as Lumière, the candelabra; Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza, the harpsichord; Audra McDonald as Madame de Garderobe, the wardrobe; Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette, the feather duster; Hattie Morahan as the enchantress; and Nathan Mack as Chip, the teacup; with Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, the mantel clock; and Emma Thompson as the teapot, Mrs. Potts.
Some interesting things about the film’s plot is that a number of small plot holes from the original are fixed, including the whereabouts of Belle’s mother, pre-Beast Prince’s age, and the whole enchantress curse thing, although I still find some murkiness around her original reasons for actually visiting and cursing the Prince. Was it just to teach him a years-long lesson? Spite? If she was so all powerful, why did she need shelter from the storm? If she singled out the Prince for a lesson, what of everyone else who was stingy, foolish, and unkind? I still have so many questions about her role, but some of it is made clearer in this film, thankfully.
By far the runaway performance in this film is Josh Gad’s. His portrayal as LeFou is absolutely masterful. There were some concerns from people about his character being gay, but it’s not heavily overt, and it’s played beautifully. Evans’ portrayal of Gaston comes across as more egotistical and narcissistic than his animated counterpart, if that’s indeed possible. The rousing song, Gaston, is still as much fun to listen to, and Alan Menkin even managed to slot in a few…risquier… lines that didn’t quite make the cut for the original animated version. Once again, though, it’s a lot that you’d have to read into, so plenty of this will be going over the heads of most younger viewers.
Stevens plays a decent Beast, despite being covered in CGI for most of the film. You can see that the animators and scriptwriters went to almost insane lengths to stay true to the original film. This isn’t as much the case for the art design of the castle’s inhabitants, because the artists went for a more realistic look that borders on creepy. That bit of creep aside, though, the CGI is mostly transparent to the audience, bar one uncomfortably awkward song sequence.
Naturally you’ll want to know about Watson’s part as Belle, and here’s the problem I had with her in the role. I just couldn’t stop seeing Emma Watson. Something about either the way she played the part, or perhaps something innately Emma Watsonish about her made it difficult for me to see her as Belle. Which is not to say that her acting was not an excellent performance, because it was. She may not be a vocal heavyweight, but she still did the role proud with both her singing and acting. It’s just that I kept thinking to myself “Oh, that’s Emma Watson dressed up like Belle,” instead of thinking, “There’s Belle”. Perhaps a repeat watching would cement the role, but it should ideally happen the first time around.
Speaking of the music, all the old favourites from the original film make a comeback here, including Be Our Guest. In addition, there were several new pieces written for the film, but despite the songwriting pedigree of both Alan Menkin and Tim Rice, I didn’t feel as moved as I did with the other songs. I can perhaps notch this down to the idea that maybe I just know the other songs too well; I’ve watched the original many many times, seeing as how it’s my wife’s favourite Disney film. Or maybe I didn’t immediately grasp the new songs because both Menkin and Rice have changed and evolved as songwriters, and something that worked well 26 years ago no longer exists.
It may sound like I’m grousing and picking on the film, but on the contrary I really did enjoy Beauty and the Beast. I always did love watching the original, and this film makes a brilliant translation. As a fan, I can’t gush about the film enough, but as a reviewer, I do have to look at things with a more critical eye. As I mentioned before, director Condon sticks very close to the source material, and I understand his catch-22 here: do you stick too closely to the source material and be criticized for doing precisely that, or vary your approach and create something new, something that adheres to your artistic vision, and then be criticized for not sticking closely enough to source? Condon, for the record, and for better or worse, chose the former.
Should you take your children to see it? I imagine that slightly older children would enjoy the film and younger ones might find the CGI characters a little quirky. Beast himself might be a little scary, as might be the inevitable scenes of violence in the film.
Overall, I enjoyed it, and it’s a fun, if slightly shallow adaptation. The new scenes don’t add as much as one would hope, and the new songs aren’t the kinds of thing to stick in one’s ear. The film stays very true to its source material, and this is both a good and bad thing. I enjoyed the slight new takes on the music and the characters, but I don’t think it’s ever going to replace the original animated film, no matter how old the original is.
Beauty and the Beast releases to theatres on 14 April 2017.